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ABA project provides legal help to immigrants who face deportation

As the owner of a barber shop and a taxi business in Honduras, Jamie Joel Bautista faced extortion attempts by hired guns tied to local police forces.

Because Bautista and his family would not comply with their demands, he said he was constantly persecuted. On one occasion, he was kidnapped and tortured.

Fearing for his life, he fled, making it to the U.S.-Mexico border last summer to seek asylum. Bautista, who had lived in the United States once previously, was subsequently placed into immigration detention at the Otay Detention Facility.

While residing there, he attended a program led by the American Bar Association’s Immigration Justice Project of San Diego to inform detainees of their legal rights and potential avenues to secure freedom in this country.

Elizabeth Knowles, director of the Immigration Justice Project of San Diego.

He also met with Ada Plascencia, an Immigration Justice Project paralegal, to discuss his case several times. She translated key forms and documents so Bautista could fill them out, and encouraged him to move forward with his quest to fend off deportation.

In February, an immigration judge denied Bautista asylum but granted him withholding of removal, which means he can stay and work in the United States as long as he has reason to fear persecution in Honduras.

Bautista, who is living in the Los Angeles area and working as a barber again, credits the Immigration Justice Project with playing a vital role in helping him gain his release.

“I was very frustrated with the system and they provided me with moral support,” he said in an interview translated from Spanish to English.

The Immigration Justice Project of San Diego has helped thousands of immigrants, who, like Bautista, could not afford legal assistance, pursue their freedom since the nonprofit was established in 2008.

The legal orientation programs and assistance with filling out forms and documents are just one component of the project's offerings.

The IJP also links immigrants, detained and nondetained, with attorneys who will take on their cases pro-bono, and it represents mentally disabled detainees in court.

“We have definitely been able to assist folks who maybe would not have gotten through their legal proceedings successfully without representation,” said Elizabeth Knowles, the IJP's director.

Legal orientation programs

The IJP's first contact with immigrants facing deportation is typically at the legal orientation programs it leads, also known as "know your rights" trainings.

The Justice Department's Executive Office of Immigration Review, which administers the orientations, contracts with nonprofits like the IJP to provide them in different parts of the country.

The IJP’s sessions are held for detainees and non-detainees, with the trainings for those in detention taking place every Tuesday and Friday at the Otay Detention Facility.

More than 7,500 immigrants have attended the IJP’s orientation programs to date.

At a recent training held in the Immigration Court section of the building in Otay Mesa, nine men and six women with “Detainee” written in black letters on the back of their shirts were in attendance.

Lourna Marquez-Carrasquillo, the IJP staff attorney leading the session, started by explaining the layout of an immigration court and highlighting the different parties that would be present at a court hearing. She spoke in Spanish.

She explained that during a hearing, the detainees could request an interpreter if needed, and they could present evidence to support their case.

Marquez-Carrasquillo then outlined the impact a previous criminal conviction, such as an aggravated felony, would have on the likelihood of being deported.

Lourna Marquez-Carrasquillo, Immigration Justice Project of San Diego staff attorney.

When asked where they were from, the detainees who chose to answer said Mexico, El Salvador and Honduras, which Marquez-Carrasquillo said was not atypical because most detainees at the facility are from Mexico and Central America.

She later shifted to describing the different types of legal relief from deportation the detainees could seek.

A number of questions came from the group about asylum and how to achieve it.

Others asked about how to get their bonds reduced. Some scribbled down notes as they received answers.

“It is a gratifying feeling to know people who otherwise would have no idea how to navigate a system so complicated end up with a little more knowledge than they went in with,” said Marquez-Carrasquillo.

The information often pays dividends for the immigrants.

Detainees who participate in a legal orientation program complete their court proceedings on average 12 days faster than those who don't participate and spend an average of six fewer days in detention, according to a 2012 Executive Office of Immigration Review report.

Once the recent group session at the Otay facility was concluded, IJP representatives met individually with the attendees.

Those sessions were a chance to ask specific questions of the detainees to narrow down what type of relief from deportation they might qualify for and how the IJP may be of further assistance.

The IJP has conducted more than 4,000 individual case assessments since its inception.

Pro-bono program

IJP staffers meet to discuss the cases of those they encountered during the legal trainings and identify those with viable claims that they could try to match with pro-bono representation.

The service is needed because many of the men and women facing deportation cannot afford an attorney.

Unlike defendants in the criminal justice system in the United States, most immigrants facing deportation are not entitled to legal representation at the government's expense.

The ABA launched the IJP seven years ago in large part because immigration appeals filed with the federal courts covering San Diego were skyrocketing, and at least 60 percent of immigrants petitioning federal courts for relief were without an attorney.

Immigrants not only fare better when they have legal counsel, but the representation also improves court efficiency by reducing the length and cost of court proceedings.

Once the IJP matches a volunteer attorney with a client to represent in immigration court, the IJP offers training, mentoring and technical support.

Knowles said preparing strong legal arguments is important, but it also key for the lawyers to provide constant moral support for their clients.

Many of them have never been in custody before, don’t speak English, miss their families and have limited knowledge about the legal issues at play, she said.

“Without an advocate or somebody to explain what’s happening at each step of the way, it is easy to lose hope and give up,” Knowles said.

The IJP has matched almost 400 immigrants with pro-bono counsel, in addition to some of its staff attorneys handling such cases.

The project recently paired up San Diego attorney Ronza Rafo with James Aphrim Anwiya, an Iraqi Christian who said he had previously been captured and beaten by members of ISIS.

With Rafo's assistance, Anwiya, who said he feared for his life if he was sent back to Iraq, was granted asylum by an immigration judge in March and reunited with some of his family living in Northern California.

"The highlight of the work is seeing individuals in detention get relief, become productive citizens here and go on to live normal, free lives," Knowles said.

Supporting mentally ill detainees

The IJP’s newest program involves staff attorneys representing detainees with mental illness who are in removal proceedings.

The initiative was started in response to a federal judge’s April 2013 ruling requiring the federal government to provide legal representation to immigrant detainees with mental disabilities who are facing deportation and cannot adequately represent themselves in immigration hearings.

The injunction was issued as part of the Franco-Gonzalez v. Holder class-action case involving a Mexican immigrant with a cognitive disability who was detained in federal immigration facilities for almost five years without a hearing or a lawyer.

IJP attorneys started taking on the cases in May 2013, and their current caseload consists of nearly 40 clients. The nonprofit also has a social worker on staff that can help the detainees secure services upon release.

“We try to not only provide compassionate, comprehensive representation to them for their legal cases, but also set them up for the best quality of life once they are released,” Knowles said.

The IJP hopes to expand its reach even further in the years to come, including by hiring a pro-bono coordinator. Funds from the nonprofit’s May 2 fundraising gala will go toward establishing that position.

But Knowles said she is thrilled with the impact the program, which has grown from a staff of two to six, is having with its current team.

“We are providing more assistance than we ever have with a very small staff of very committed team members,” she said.

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